What is the “Old Catholic Church”?

Q1: Could you tell me more about other Catholic ecclesial communities that are not Roman Catholic, such as the American National Catholic Church, and how they fit into the big picture of Catholicism? –John

Q2:  What is the “Old Catholic Church”?  Can we go to Mass there? –Barbara

A:  When a person describes himself as a “Catholic,” you don’t have to be a canon lawyer to know instinctively what that’s supposed to mean.  The Code of Canon Law nevertheless provides the guideline in canon 205: Persons in full communion with the Catholic Church are joined with it through the profession of the same faith, the same sacraments, and the same ecclesiastical governance.  All three of these elements must be present for someone to be truly Catholic.

With regard to institutions in general, they are not supposed to use the word “Catholic” in their title unless they first have obtained permission from competent ecclesiastical authority (c. 216).  This authority is usually the diocesan bishop, who is ultimately responsible for the Catholic faithful living in the territory entrusted to his spiritual care (cf. c 383).  This rule applies also to Catholic schools (c. 803.3) and universities (c. 808).  No matter how devout and theologically orthodox they may be, Catholics cannot band together on their own initiative and establish any organization or other entity calling itself “Catholic” unless the local bishop gives his approval first.

But as we saw back in “Are They Really Catholic? Part II,” and “Canon Law and ‘Catholic’ Organizations,” the term “Catholic” is not a licensed trademark, and so the Catholic Church can’t forcibly prevent non-Catholic entities from describing themselves in this way.  The groups mentioned in the two questions above are clear examples of this.

Let’s look at the second one first.  The “Old Catholic Church” refers to a breakaway group of Catholics who rejected elements of the First Vatican Council, held in 1869-1870.  Their objections centered particularly around that Council’s declaration of papal infallibility (see “When Does the Pope Speak Infallibly?” for more on this teaching).  Catholics nowadays tend to take papal infallibility for granted, even if they don’t fully understand all its nuances; but when it was first promulgated  in the late 19th century, many Catholics—both clergy and laity— strongly disagreed, and some of them actually broke away from Rome.  The history of this schism is complicated, and you can read about part of it here; but in a nutshell, many of those who refused to accept all the decrees of Vatican I joined together in what is known as the Old Catholic Church, centered around Utrecht, Holland.

Countless people have left the Catholic Church over the nearly 2000 years of its existence, and in many cases their splinter-groups have disappeared completely over the course of time.  These breakaway groups tend to die out when the priests who broke away with them eventually pass away.  With no clergy to carry on their schismatic worship, the laity who are left ultimately abandon the schism, and in this way it simply fizzles out.

The Old Catholic Church, however, has never been without clergy to carry on the faith, because the former Catholic bishop of Utrecht took part in the schism.  And whether he maintains communion with Rome or not, a Catholic bishop always retains the sacramental power not only to ordain new priests, but also to consecrate other bishops (c. 1012).  A renegade Catholic bishop can therefore ordain other bishops, who in turn can ordain more bishops, etc.—and while these episcopal ordinations are obviously illicit since the Pope has not approved them (cf. c. 1013), they are nonetheless valid.  The Pope can command a particular bishop not to do this, of course; but if that bishop willfully chooses to disobey, there’s really nothing the Pope can do to stop him!

The Old Catholic clergy, therefore, are considered by the Catholic Church to be validly ordained priests and bishops.  (There is one exception: the Old Catholics now have women priests, whom the Catholic Church does not hold to be validly ordained clergy.  See “Can Women be Ordained Priests?” for more on this.)  Old Catholic priests thus have the power to celebrate a valid Mass, and Old Catholic bishops can validly confer confirmation as well as Holy Orders.  Naturally, the Catholic Church holds that since they are out of communion with Rome, they shouldn’t be doing any of this!  For that reason, all of their liturgical celebrations are illicit, or illegal, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, and Catholics are to avoid them.

So how does the “American National Catholic Church” that John mentions fit into all this?  Well, if you look at the info on their bishop, you find that he “was  consecrated to the episcopacy… through the Apostolic lines of Utrecht… at the National Cathedral of Washington, D.C.”  If we were wondering whether this bishop is in communion with the Pope, this online statement tells us all we need to know.  The “Apostolic lines of Utrecht” are schismatic bishops consecrated without papal mandate, in the years following the First Vatican Council.  And “the National Cathedral of Washington, D.C.” is an Episcopal cathedral, not a Catholic one—so a Catholic bishop in full communion with Rome would certainly never be consecrated there!

They may not be calling themselves members of the Old Catholic Church, but this is clearly another schismatic group, operating along the same basic canonical lines.  A lot of what they say and do sounds exactly like ordinary Catholic teaching and praxis; but the American National Catholic Church also indicates that they support women clergy, homosexual marriage, and permitting non-Catholics to receive the Eucharist—positions which are diametrically opposed to the Catholic Church’s teaching.

If you’re travelling or move into a new area, and you come across a parish run by such a group, it can be hard to recognize right away that they are not in communion with Rome.  Here’s a link to an American National Catholic Church parish, and here’s another to their order of  “Franciscans.”  How many ordinary Catholics would be able to spot the differences between these and their Catholic equivalents?

Speaking of spotting differences, it’s worth pointing out that there is a “real” Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Utrecht in Holland, that is in full communion with the Pope.  Thus there are Catholic priests who can honestly say that they were indeed ordained by the Archbishop of Utrecht!  But it goes without saying that priests ordained in this “Utrecht line” are being ordained to minister to the Catholic faithful living in the Archdiocese of Utrecht—which means they are normally going to be found in Holland, not in North America.

By this point, some readers may be thinking that the Old Catholic Church and the American National Catholic Church canonically sound a lot like the Society of St. Pius X—and that’s correct.  The SSPX has been discussed in this space before (see “Are They Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part III,” and “Canon Law and the SSPX,” among others), but in general, the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre consecrated four bishops in 1988 without a papal mandate, in violation of the canon 1013 mentioned above.  Despite St. John Paul II’s objections, Archbishop Lefebvre had the sacramental power to validly consecrate these men, and so they really are Catholic bishops—but their consecrations were illicit, and they still are not in full communion with Rome today.

As was discussed at length in “Are SSPX Sacraments Valid? Part I” and “Part II,” the clergy of the SSPX can validly confer most of the sacraments, though not all of them.  And the clergy of the Old Catholic Church and other related splinter-groups are fundamentally in the same canonical situation. 

So we can see that these groups are not in full communion with the Catholic Church as per canon 205, since they do not have the same faith, the same sacraments, and the same ecclesiastical governance.  To answer John’s question, they don’t “fit into the big picture of Catholicism,” since they are outside of it.  Catholics should not knowingly attend the Masses celebrated by clergy of these groups, or receive sacraments from them, if they want to remain in full communion with Rome.

If you’re ever unsure of the status of a church calling itself “Catholic,” there’s a simple way to find out: just ask!  Catholic priests will tell you without hesitation that they are in full communion with the Pope, and can clearly explain what diocese they’re in (and in the case of priests who are members of religious institutes like the Franciscans or Dominicans, they can also tell you what province of their institute they are members of).  The hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church is public knowledge, and so it’s fairly easy to establish whether a parish church fits into that structure… or it doesn’t.

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